OU Lecturer Chris Douce continues his series of guest blog posts for The Wide View with a review of the recent Open University Disabled Student Services Conference. In this first part, Chris reflects on issues related to co-occurrence and some of the keynote speeches from the first day of the conference.

I recently attended the university’s disabled student services conference held between 13 and 14 May 2014.  I think this was the third time I’ve been to this event, and every time I go I always learn something new.

This is a quick blog summary of the sessions I attended.  I guess this summary serves a number of purposes.  Firstly, it’s a summary of some of the continuing professional development I’ve been getting up to this year.  Secondly, it might be of interest to any of my students who might be studying H810 accessible e-learning (OU website).  Thirdly, it might be useful to some of my colleagues, or for anyone who accidentally stumbles across this series of two posts.

The complexities of co-occurrence

The first session of the day was presented by my colleague Jonathan Jewell, who works as an associate lecturer for a least three different faculties.  My first thought was, ‘what is meant by co-occurrence?’ – it wasn’t a term I had heard before.  I quickly figured out that it means that a person can have a number of different conditions at the same time.  A big part of his session was about what this might mean in terms of understanding a profile that contains quite a lot of information.

During Jonathan’s session I remember a debate about the terms ‘student-centred’ and ‘person-centred’.  The point was that although a student might be studying a particular module, they are on a programme, and this can, of course relate to a broader set of personal objectives that they might hold.

Every student who discloses a disability may have their own disability profile. The aim of the profile is tell a tutor something about their students to help them to understand what adjustments (in terms of their tuition) they could make.

During Jonathan’s session we looked at a sample profile and thought about it in terms of its strengths and weaknesses.  Our group concluded that the profile we were given contained a lot of information.  A particular weakness was that it contained a lot of quite technical jargon that was quite hard to understand.  A later task was to devise a ‘tutor plan of action’ based on the profile.  A clear point that was mentioned was the importance of establishing early contact with students to ensure that they feel comfortable and supported.

Towards the end of the session, I remember a debate that student profiles can change; some disabilities are temporary.  I also understand that there are now clearer university guidelines about how profiles should be written; a profile written today might be different to how it was written a couple of years ago.

Keynote: REAL services to assist students who identify with Asperger syndrome (AS)

The first keynote of the day was by Nichola Martin who I understand works for the University of Cambridge.  The ‘REAL’ bit of her presentation title is an abbreviation for: reliable, empathic, anticipatory and logical – this idea is that we should be these attributes when we work with people who identify with having Asperger syndrome (AS).  Very early on during her presentation she made the key point that ‘if you’ve met one person with AS, you’ve only met one person with AS’.

Nichola also exposed us to stereotypes from the media, which she asked us to question.  The use of language is fundamentally important too, i.e. the term ‘condition’ is better than ‘disorder’ which suggests that something is fundamentally wrong.  Another interesting point is that the characteristics of people can change over time, a point that neatly connects back to the previous session about the changing nature of student profiles.

A big part of Nichola’s presentation was to share some findings from a research project that studied the views of students.  Its aim was to develop a model of best practice for student with AS, improve access to diagnosis, raise awareness and develop networks.

One really important point is about the importance of clear language; always be clear in what you either say or write.  An important point that I have noted is that if we make accommodations for one group, this is likely to help all students.  Stating clear assumptions in a clear and respectful way is, of course, useful for everyone.

Another point is that institutions can be difficult to negotiate, particularly during the early stage of study.  If things are chaotic at the beginning of university study, it might be difficult to get back onto an even keel.  Some challenges that students might face can include finding their way through new social environments.  I’ve noted down a quote which goes, ‘my main barriers have been social and I find large groups of people I don’t know intimidating – as a result, I rarely attend lectures and often feel alone’.

There were some really interesting points about disability and identity which deserve further reflection.  Some students choose not to disclose and don’t go anywhere near the disability services part of the university.  Students may not want ‘special services’, since this hints at the notion of ‘othering’, or the emphasis of difference.  If people don’t want to talk about their personal circumstances, that is entirely their right.

We were told that Asperger’s and autism are terms that are used interchangeably, and this is reflected in the most recent publication of the DSM (Wikipedia, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

There were a number of things that were new to me, such as The Autism Act 2009 (National Autistic Society), and The Autism Strategy 2010 (National Autistic Society), which has been recently updated.  Another interesting and useful link is a video interview produced by the National Autistic Society (YouTube).   It was also great to hear that Nichola also mentioned OU module SK124 understanding the autism spectrum (OU website).

All in all, a thought provoking talk.

Workshop: Student Support Teams and Disabled Students Support

The next event I went to was a workshop where different members of the newly formed student support teams (SSTs) were brought together to discuss the challenges of supporting students who have disabilities.  Again, the subject of student profiles was also discussed.

My own perspective (regarding student support teams) is one that has been really positive.  Whenever I’ve come across an issue when I needed to help a student (or a tutor) with a particular problem, I’ve always been able to speak with a learning support advisor who have always been unstintingly helpful.  I personally feel that now there are more people who I can speak to regarding advice and guidance.

Keynote: The life of a mouth artist

The final keynote of the day was a really enjoyable and insightful talk by artist, Keith Jansz.  Keith began by telling us about his background.  After being involved in a car accident, in which he was significantly paralysed, he started to learn how to draw and paint after being given a book about mouth artists by his mother in law.

Keith spoke how he learnt how to paint, describing the process that he went through.  Being someone who has a low opinion of my own abilities when it comes to using a pencil, I found his story fascinating.  I enjoyed Keith’s descriptions of light, colour, and the creative process. What struck me were the links between creativity, learning and self-expression; all dimensions that are inextricably intertwined.

I thought his talk was a perfect keynote for this conference.   It was only afterwards that the implicit connections between Keith’s talk and the connections with university study became apparent. Learning, whatever form it may take, can be both life changing and life affirming.

During the conference, there was an accompanying exhibition of Keith’s work.  You can also view a number of his paintings on hiswebsite.

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